I once fought to keep Cyn­toia Brown be­hind bars

The Commercial Appeal - - Viewpoint - Your Turn

In a ma­jor vic­tory for hu­man rights ad­vo­cates, 30-year-old Cyn­toia Brown was granted clemency by Ten­nessee Gov. Bill Haslam. She is set to be re­leased Aug. 7.

Her case got na­tional at­ten­tion thanks to so­cial me­dia at­ten­tion from celebri­ties such as Ri­hanna, Kim Kar­dashian and Lebron James. Cyn­toia was only 16 years old in 2004 when she killed a man more than twice her age who had picked her up for sex. She was tried as an adult, con­victed of first-de­gree mur­der and rob­bery, and sen­tenced to the manda­tory 51 years in prison.

When her story went vi­ral, the tragic facts of her case — born with fe­tal al­co­hol syn­drome due to her mother’s ex­ces­sive drink­ing dur­ing her preg­nancy; abused and ne­glected as a child; liv­ing on the streets; self-med­i­cat­ing her men­tal health is­sues with al­co­hol and drugs; vic­tim­ized and ex­ploited by a hu­man traf­ficker — cap­tured the at­ten­tion of peo­ple across the coun­try.

Peo­ple were out­raged by the un­fair­ness of im­pos­ing such a dra­co­nian sen­tence against a child who had been sub­jected to so much vi­o­lence and hor­ror. The harsh­ness of her sen­tence ig­nored the moun­tain of mit­i­gat­ing fac­tors in her case, as well as the great po­ten­tial that young peo­ple have to make pos­i­tive change and ex­pe­ri­ence trans­for­ma­tion.

Chil­dren suf­fer in our crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem

Cyn­toia’s case is of spe­cial in­ter­est to me be­cause in 2008, I served as the prose­cu­tor who ar­gued against her ap­peal. But I later got to know Cyn­toia per­son­ally when I had her in a col­lege class that I taught at the prison where she was in­car­cer­ated. To be sure, we had some is­sues to work through when it dawned on us that we had been on op­po­site sides of the court­room, but we were able to put the past aside and forge a friend­ship. Al­though I once ar­gued in fa­vor of her in­car­cer­a­tion, I was proud to sup­port her ap­pli­ca­tion for clemency.

Cyn­toia has ex­pe­ri­enced emo­tional heal­ing from her trau­matic past and has dili­gently worked to be­come an ex­cep­tional per­son. She has taken re­spon­si­bil­ity for her ac­tions, de­vel­oped a pos­i­tive at­ti­tude, and cul­ti­vated a deep de­sire to help oth­ers. I am thrilled be­yond mea­sure that she’ll be able to build a life out­side of prison.

Cyn­toia’s story should not de­mand our at­ten­tion be­cause she is a rare ex­cep­tion. The op­po­site is true. She rep­re­sents many other peo­ple who, like her, re­ceived harsh sen­tences as chil­dren and un­der­went a pro­found and beau­ti­ful trans­for­ma­tion, yet re­main in­car­cer­ated with lit­tle hope of be­ing re­leased due to sen­tenc­ing laws that are much in need of re­form. Im­pris­on­ing peo­ple for decades, even after they have demon­strated re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, is a fail­ure on the part of so­ci­ety to live up to our best val­ues of redemp­tion and sec­ond chances.

The na­tional at­ten­tion be­ing given to the case of Cyn­toia Brown should mo­ti­vate all of us to ask, “How did this hap­pen, and to who else?” Those work­ing to ban ex­treme sen­tences for chil­dren have made sig­nif­i­cant strides in re­cent years, and we should join them.

Pre­ston Shipp teaches for Lip­scomb Univer­sity at the Ten­nessee Prison for Women.

Pre­ston Shipp Guest colum­nist

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.